Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It's no secret that Durham, North Carolina, is almost strictly a hoops town, with the Cameron Crazies coming out year after year to cheer on the Duke Blue Devils men's basketball program, while the football team goes largely unnoticed.
There's plenty of documented evidence that proves this bias. While the basketball team has been a consistent national powerhouse with 19 straight NCAA Tournament appearances under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the football program had struggled mightily with 18 consecutive losing campaigns from 1995-2012, which included winless seasons in 1996, 2000, 2001 and 2006.
It's been a rough go for the Duke football program not only over the last two decades but over the course of its entire existence -- it has qualified for only 10 bowl games in its 125-year history -- but following an unexpected, outstanding year in 2013, excitement for Blue Devils football is at an all- time high.
In David Cutcliffe's sixth season as head coach, Duke was arguably the biggest surprise in the FBS as it recorded its first-ever double-digit win campaign. After a modest 2-2 start, the Blue Devils reeled off eight consecutive victories, including triumphs over two ranked squads, Virginia Tech (13-10) and Miami-Florida (48-30). They finished the regular season 6-2 in the ACC, good enough for first place in the Coastal Division.
Duke's improbable run came to a halt in the ACC Championship Game when it was handled by eventual BCS national champion Florida State (45-7), and it fell on the wrong end of a 52-48 shootout against Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Despite the late-season slide, it was still an unprecedented 10-4 campaign for the Blue Devils, who finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1961, and there's plenty of hope that their success can roll over into 2014.
"I like the momentum of this squad," Cutcliffe said back at the start of spring practice in February. "I want to see our young people compete."
Cutcliffe, the two-time reigning ACC Coach of the Year, has a lot of pieces to work with heading into the new season, as 44 lettermen and 17 starters from the 2013 squad are back in the fold.
However, one player who won't be suiting up for the Blue Devils this fall is quarterback Brandon Connette, who, after an impressive performance in the spring game (11-of-16, 121 yards, two touchdowns), abruptly transferred to Fresno State to be closer to his ailing mother in California.
Connette shined in limited passing opportunities filling in for an injured Anthony Boone (1,212 yards, 13 TDs, six interceptions) and figured prominently as a rusher near the goal line all season long (14 rushing TDs), and he had a legitimate opportunity to claim the starting job outright in 2014.
With Connette removed from the picture, Boone's path is cleared heading into his senior season, assuming he can remain healthy. The signal caller was incredibly streaky last year en route to a modest season (2,260 yards, 13 TDs, 13 interceptions), and he even endured a three-week stint in the middle of the season, where he threw zero touchdowns and seven picks, but he saved his best performance for last when he completed 29-of-45 passes in the Chick-fil-A Bowl for a career-high 427 yards with four scores (one rushing).
"The better we know our roles, the better off we'll be," Boone said. "I feel like we have a lot of experience. A lot of guys know where they need to be. We know what we're doing in our system, know what we're trying to accomplish and we have a good feel for our opponents in our conference. I'm looking forward to seeing what next season has (in store) for us."
Boone's success under center will be largely linked to his report with All-ACC receiver Jamison Crowder, who was excellent last season with a conference- record 108 receptions for 1,360 yards and eight touchdowns. One of the nation's elite playmakers, Crowder also was deadly in the punt return game (25 returns, 401 yards, two TDs) and even added a rushing score, and a similar performance out of the speedster is well within reach, especially because he's just 1,153 receiving yards shy of the ACC career record.
Complementing Crowder in the pass-catching game will be Braxton Deaver. The senior has established himself as an excellent receiving tight end and will look to improve upon a stellar 2013 (46 receptions, 600 yards, four TDs).
Duke employed a running back-by-committee approach last season, with no player amassing more than 113 carries, but Josh Snead made the most of his limited reps by gaining 651 yards on just 107 touches (6.1 yards per carry). Snead, along with Shaquille Powell (62 carries, 344 yards, two TDs), figure to be the primary ball carriers behind an experienced offensive line that returns three starters.
Even without the luxury of Connette's versatility, the Blue Devils offense appears in good shape to duplicate last season's impressive numbers (32.8 points per game, 426.1 yards per game), but what about the defensive side of the ball?
The unit, which was solid last season in allowing 26.6 ppg, doesn't possess nearly the same continuity as the offense does, but it still has a few top- notch playmakers in place to act as anchors.
All-ACC safety Jeremy Cash is a jack of all trades. The hard-hitting defensive back recorded 121 tackles to go with 9.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries, and a similar season could make him a hot commodity in next spring's NFL draft.
Linebacking duo David Helton (133 tackles) and Kelby Brown (114 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, two interceptions) both expect to be near the top of the conference in stops yet again. DeVon Edwards (64 tackles, three interceptions) and Deondre Singleton (63 tackles, interception) both return to the secondary, but the team will need to rely heavily on an inexperienced defensive line, especially with the departure of Kenny Anunike, who accounted for six of the team's modest sack total of 23.
Duke football has been playing second-fiddle on campus for nearly its entire existence, and one strong season won't change that fact, but the pieces are in place for another great run in 2014, especially since it was granted a gift by the schedule makers in avoiding Florida State in the regular season. Cutcliffe has built an unlikely success story in the heart of Tobacco Road, and he and the Blue Devils are out to prove they are here to stay.